Breaking the Barrier -- Street Fighter 4
Fighting games are something that I've grown up with and had a passion for all of my life. To me, they're iconic of my childhood; a few friends will get together, divide up characters (you can never play the same, of course), and just have a great time. However, there is a very big gap between playing with your friends and learning to play those games competitively. If you've watched recent tournaments like Evo 2013 then you can see just how far people can push these games.
Obligatory Evo throwback
I want to make a disclaimer that I am a far cry from amazing at SF4. I started playing about a year ago and continue to improve all the time. The journey is amazing. It's a combination of introspection and humility that can be really powerful and hopefully is something that you can apply outside the scope of just getting better at a game.
That being said, this will be a bit of my own anecdote as well as a compilation of what I believe to be the most useful resources out there for getting better. I'll try to organize conceptually rather than chronologically (as I don't believe there is one "path" at getting into fighting games). You could easily start out with combos and then move to fundamentals, or vice versa. Does it really matter? Probably not. Pick what inspires you the most and keep playing.
Everyone talks about fundamentals. They throw this word around so much and I feel like it's often misused to mean "patience." The whole mantra behind this is that you understand the game at some core level, thus it improves the rest of your game as a result. That's a pretty sound view of it, but I want to break it down a little more specifically for Street Fighter 4.
My biggest advice for people starting out in SF4 is to stop jumping. That is something you will hear echoed throughout many of the resources I link. At a fundamental level, it's very difficult to safely jump in on a good player (especially when you're starting out). This is because anti-airs are very strong in SF4. You have characters with normals that have amazing hit boxes to hit you for free and reset the situation. Does this mean never jump? Of course not. But this is a great topic for starting to delve into what fundamentals really mean.
Let's imagine that you are playing against a Ryu. For now, the character you're playing is irrelevant. A big part of Ryu's game is throwing fire balls to keep you out. You have several options against this, but one possibility is jumping over the fireball and attempting to either get closer or hit him with an aerial.
Excuse the terrible image. But I'm going to attempt to use these zones to explain how this situation could unfold, depending on your spacing. This is a key word that will appear throughout my article. At the core, I view it as the single most important aspect of any competitive game -- so much so, that I'll likely touch on it briefly in the philosophy section and then expand on it in another article.
In any case, this image has three distinct zones: green, yellow, and red. These are not accurate or to scale, but they are in the right order. The idea is that there is a distance from Ryu you can be where it is not safe to jump fireballs on reaction (important to note -- predicting fireballs is entirely different). This is the red section. This is where Ryu wants to keep you at all times. He can throw fireballs recklessly, depending the matchup, and simply throw out a Shoryuken to punish your jump in. However, if you walk forward into the yellow area now you can react with a jump in. Suddenly it becomes safe and you are more in charge of the situation. And lastly, there is a point where you can't react to the fireball coming out, the green section. This is known as the footsie area. It varies highly and is different for each character, but the general idea is that you can't react (or react well might be more accurate) to moves your opponent performs at this distance.
What is the point of illustrating this? Knowing this information is what makes you good at fundamentals. There are several situations in this game that can be broken down conceptually and analyzed from a high level. To me, this is what we mean when we say fundamentals. It's beyond just knowing to Shoryuken jump-ins; it's understanding what situations that happens in.
Combos are a huge part of any fighting game. The point of a combo is that once you get in, you want to make the most out of it. So practicing and understanding the max damage you can get out of a situation is very important. Also under this umbrella is the idea of a hit confirm. This means that you don't always know if something will hit. So, you want to confirm that your hit got through with one or two safe attacks (usually jabs). From there you can go into a combo, depending on the character and situation.
The best way to practice combos is to look up some of their bread and butters (a link can be found in the resources section) and try them out in practice mode. Doing them once isn't enough; you need to drill them if you want to be good. I'd say if you can land the combo ten times in a row (restarting the count if you mess up), then you should be good to move forward.
Hit confirming is a huge part of SF4. A lot of the times when you go for something like a cross up you don't know if your opponent will block it or not. You should be able to realize when you have the hit, and translate that into the best damage you can. An easy way to practice this is random block in training mode.
I could talk for days about the mental aspects of fighting games or really just competitive gaming in general. It's a topic that fascinates me because while you can go on and on about it, often times matches are decided in a very small window. You will drill a combo for hours, all for one chance to use it. That tension is what makes fighting games so amazing to watch and be a part of.
That being said, I've been able to summarize my entire mental game into one, singular question: "Can I walk forward?"
This is a pretty universal philosophy that I take with me to other games as well. At it's core, what you're really asking is a loaded question. Can you actually walk forward? What will happen if I do? Do I respect my opponent enough to not walk forward? Turn it around. Does my opponent think he/she can walk forward? What can I do to strike fear into them?
These are really important things to think about when playing SF4. For example, I play main Ryu and the biggest aspect of his game is managing the opponents options. In certain matchups, I can be relentless with my fireballs. In others, like against Balrog for example, I have to be a little more clever. At a lower level, Balrog might be able to shut down Ryu's fireball game entirely with something like a turn punch.
A novice Ryu will get hit with this a few times, get timid, and then stop entirely. The biggest thing they probably don't realize is that they're becoming predictable with their fireballs. Once the Balrog shuts down his fireball game, what options do you have to win? Nothing. You're too afraid.
The correct solution is to not throw fireballs all the time. Walk back and forth, throw out a jab. Do a quarter circle forward kick (nothing comes out, nice fakie for a fireball). You can literally be doing nothing but crouch blocking and that might be enough to make your opponent question your next move.
The point isn't which wins in fireball vs turn punch. The point is that you need to make your opponent earn every bit of what they get from you. Don't let him throw turn punches and blow you up. If he's doing that, stop for a minute and react. He will eat a Shoryuken for free. Do this a few times and he'll respect you enough to think (or lose the match for free). It's this line of thinking that is so important for elevating your Street Fighter play.
VesperArcade's SF4 Tutorial Series
The best resource for learning SF4 on YouTube. Goes over, in great detail, mechanics and execution
Fundamentals by Beyond Technical
Extremely good video talking about how to maximize what you can do with a very small toolkit
SF4 subreddit bread and butter thread
Amazing combo resource that you can use for drills
David Sirlin's "Playing to Win"
A great collection of articles about getting more competitive
First Attack by James Chen
Series by one of the best casters in the business